Toddlers want to DO. They relentlessly pursue each milestone, and once they reach it, they immediately move on to the next one. As a result, a lot of what they’re doing on a daily basis they aren’t doing well. Toddlers are in a constant state of toil.
The other day, I watched my one-year-old throw herself a tea party in her play kitchen. She set up the table with cups, plates, and several large slices of cake made of molded plastic. After her set up was complete, she grabbed a chair that was sitting about five feet away and started to move it towards the table. The chair was just about as big as she was and when she picked it up the back of it towered above her head. The same day, my three-year-old was working on her clothes independently. She looked at the tags and tried to get the back of her undies and the back of her dress aligned correctly. She wedged her feet into her leggings, pulling them up one painful inch at a time.
My children deal with their difficulties in different ways. My oldest whines and reverts back to baby talk when she’s really frustrated. “Helllllp!”. When she’s a little more on the angry side, she makes the same noise I do when I’m frustrated, a loud sigh out the mouth. My youngest yells at the top of her lungs, loud enough to cause physical pain to my eardrums, and she throws her body flat onto the floor. She often screams, “I can’t!”
My one-year-old’s chair teetered back and forth and I watched her wrestle with it as she tried to maintain control. The legs of the chair dragged along the carpet and they caught on fake bottles of milk and plastic cans of peas that were scattered in her path along the floor. At one point, she threw down the chair and shrieked in frustration. I watched as she picked it back up and I listened as she grunted in exertion.
My three-year-old’s undies were on sideways and as she pulled them up the edges cut into her legs. She realized what she was doing wasn’t working and I heard her angry sigh. She flipped her dress over and fought to find the neck hole. Her dress had two layers and she had only put her head through the first one, so there was no amount of pushing that would allow her head to poke through. I watched. In both instances, I was right there, but I didn’t help them.
I let them struggle.
It was hard to stand there and not jump in. It took effort to restrain myself from picking up the chair and moving it for my little one. It was difficult to not pick up my daughter’s dress and slide it over her head. I knew I could get both tasks done easily. I knew I could change their grimaces to smiles within the matter of a couple of seconds. I knew I could get the tasks done quickly so we could move on with our day. I resisted the urge. I knew that the only way to raise fighters was to let them fight. Yes, I want kids who can fight.
I’m raising warriors.
As much as I have the instinct to protect my kids from strife, I know that to shield them from struggle is to do them a disservice. Because life isn’t easy. It never is. It’s better for them to learn that they are capable of persevering through the tough times than to think they’re incapable or that someone else will be able to relieve them of their burdens. Most people don’t really like to admit that they are in control of managing their own responsibilities, their own behavior, or their own happiness. I sometimes resist this idea myself. Every now and again I get overwhelmed and frustrated and I hear the angry sigh come out of my own mouth. Sometimes I want someone else to save me from my troubles. Even though I don’t always act like it, I know that there’s no way around it, I’ve got to fight my own battles. No one else can do that work for me.
For kids, learning to push through difficulties begins with moving a chair from point A to point B, or pulling a dress over a head. These are just a couple of the first skirmishes in life that they will have to figure out how to navigate. They’re the teeny tiny toddler versions of facing adversity. These age-appropriate struggles are minuscule specks of the struggles they’ll have to deal with in the years to come. At least they’ve got years of physical and emotional endurance training ahead of them, which I hope will prepare them well for the bigger battles that typically begin during the teenage and young adult years. I’m doing what I can to raise kids who can wrestle with their demons instead of becoming consumed by them. I’m raising kids who proudly boast their battle scars instead of being debilitated by their injuries. I’m raising kids who fight against their frustrations and their fears.
Learning to be a happy human is a herculean battle.
Every time I am able to hold off on helping, every time I let my kids figure something out on their own, it’s worth it. The smile I see at the end of a struggle is so much more substantial than the smile I get when I do something for them. The exclamations of “I did it!” and the realization that they can do hard things outweighs any superficial benefits of eliminating their opponents for them. Self-awareness and self-confidence cannot be attained by any single successful encounter. They require a series of victories over time. The instance with the chair and the dress will not be the last times I hear a piercing shriek or an angry sigh because it will not be the last time I let my children struggle. I will continue to push them to fight through the hard times now, even when I’m right there, so they will be able to do so later when I definitely won’t be.
There is so much that can weigh us down. It’s not just the hardships and disappointments and efforts involved in the everyday grind. Our battles are not only against those external demands. Even though I’m surrounded by so much that is good, it can be difficult to focus on what matters. What makes me happy. What makes me whole. For me, happiness does not ever come easily. My anxiety and my fears often rise up against me, clobbering my confidence and battering my psyche. It takes effort to fight back. It takes strategy to win the war against displeasure, despair, and depression. I know I’m not alone in this. As happy as my kids are now as toddlers, I know this is not guaranteed to extend to adulthood. They’ll need to fight for it too. So, I’m raising kids who can crush their self-doubts and who can fend off the inevitable barrage of negative emotions and influences.
I’m cultivating children who will conquer themselves.
My kids will grapple with the most difficult and subversive opponents: their own selves. This extends well beyond the toddler stage, the tween and teen years and even into adulthood. I know from experience that there’s no fleeing this foe, that there will always be some sort of war that is waged, so I’m doing my best to make sure they’re prepared for battle. By letting them struggle. By letting them figure out how to fight.
I’m raising warriors.